When the new Charlotte City Council is sworn in next week, the average age of our governing board will drop dramatically.
- Braxton Winston, age 35, takes over an at-large seat, ousting 82-year-old Claire Fallon.
- Dimple Ajmera, age 31, slides into the seat formerly occupied by our soon-to-be Mayor Vi Lyles, age 65.
- Larken Egleston, 34, replaces 76-year-old Patsy Kinsey.
- Justin Harlow, 29, takes over for Carlenia Ivory, age 67.
- Tariq Scott Bokhari, 37, fills in south Charlotte’s District 6 in place of Kenny Smith, 44.
- Matt Newton, 38, keeps a 30-something in the District 5 spot that Ajmera had previously occupied.
If you’re keeping score at home, that will make six people under the age of 40 on an 11-member council — a majority. They even have acquired something of a nickname already: the “Freshman Class.”
It’s become the most popular topic of conversation among local political circles: How will these Millennials wield their newfound power?
Conversations with the soon-to-be council members show that they know they’re under the microscope. As such, they’re likely to move slowly after Monday’s inauguration.
But the five new members — and Ajmera, a “redshirt freshman,” if you will — have already begun forming relationships and discussing their shared priorities.
And one thing seems certain: They will not be beholden to the status quo.
“There’s a bit of excitement in terms of the ability to move forward in a different kind of way,” Winston said. “We’re an emerging city. We do need a different perspective.”
The five brand-new members of the board have already been spending a considerable amount of time together. They began bonding at the big National League of Cities conference held in Charlotte, and also sat through an intensive orientation process.
The large incoming class has allowed them to compare notes and impressions as they go along.
“There’s been a dynamic of shared excitement and leaning on one another as we ramp up on more complex topics than we can count,” Bokhari said.
That’s allowed one early priority to emerge: Transparency.
Several incoming council members said they want to quickly find ways to bring more voices and opinions from the community into the mix.
And Winston, in particular, rose to prominence in part because of his Facebook Live-streaming of the protests after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott.
A simple step would be to reverse the council’s recent vote to stop televising the council’s regular public comment period. The council took that step after sometimes-raucous comment sessions, with some council members implying that people were showing off for the cameras.
But this initiative will likely expand into other areas — including ways for people to weigh in without sitting through torturously long council meetings.
“Almost no one, no one under 50, is going to subject themselves to a zoning meeting,” Egleston said. “We want to make it digestible to people.”
But don’t expect the freshman class to go overboard in the beginning.
When their six-person majority became evident, there were some rumblings that the new council members could push to make Winston the mayor pro tem, instead of following tradition and bestowing the title on Julie Eiselt as the top at-large vote-getter.
That now appears to be off the table, and several incoming council members said they want to be very careful not to create an “us” versus “them” dynamic between the 20- and 30-somethings and more veteran members of the board.
“Nobody is coming in and commandeering anything,” Winston said.
This cautious start will then likely run into the realities of their position. They are still just members of an 11-person board and charged with running a large bureaucracy and many unsexy necessities — filling potholes, so to speak.
Incoming Mayor Lyles will wield veto power over anything the board approves. Further complicating things is the fact that one of the freshman class is a Republican — Bokhari. That brings a majority down to five votes if they disagree. And the five Democrats have their own backgrounds and priorities and opinions, as well.
“We’re obviously not going to agree with him on everything, and hell, we might not agree with each other on everything,” Egleston said. “But we share the view of not having to do things the way we’ve always done things.”
But what exactly will happen when these new council members turn their attention to the pressing and difficult problems our city faces?
The freshman class feels like they have a mandate to take new approaches to issues like affordable housing, economic mobility and transportation. Will they be successful? It’s too soon to tell.
The city’s political establishment will be keeping a close eye on these council members as their term begins. Expect to see some more innovative proposals coming forward by the midpoint in their terms.
“We know we may have more eyes and scrutiny on us because of our age, but we aren’t letting that hinder how we critically analyze information to best create solutions to meet everyone’s needs in this city,” Harlow said.